Ritual - an changing paradigm

We all have rituals, but we need to understand why we have rituals and the evolutionary and changing nature of such rituals in accord with the fundamental purpose they perform. Rituals do more than provide comfort and certainty, they allow us to engage in the meta-narratives that define who we are in the cultural context in which we live, within the environmental diversity that helps define us.

Take for example the farmer. All farmers have ritual embedded in their daily life that defines their connection to the land they tend and the product they offer. Farmers don’t go out today and continue routinely feeding, grooming, and caring for their horses and associated ploughing equipment. Their ritual has changed to checking the machinery they are using is serviceable and in good order. Chemists no longer grind away various ingredients into a pharmaceutical product which relies on people using teaspoons or eyedroppers to administer. They instead cross-check and ensure that mass produced medicines are distributed and used in a way that is both prescribed and of benefit. Both farmer and pharmacist have seen their profession evolve dramatically over the years, and consequently their rituals by which they define their vocation as either farmer or pharmacist has evolved and redefined their trade.

Traditional societies, not subject to the dramatic shifts in the world in which they live, retain ritual that, while slowly evolving, has a long developed resonance with their past. You can see this in the few tribal communities that still exist without the direct touch of the modern world. Post-traditional societies are in a state of constant redefinition for the pace of change is so rapid there is little time to embed ritual in a way that helps people engage in their common narrative.

The question for the church, is where does it wish to live – in a traditional society, where ritual remains static, providing comfort and certainty within a cultural vacuum, or is it willing to redefine its ritual to provide meaning in a post-traditional world?

One can’t help but note that Jesus constantly redefined ritual and tradition in a new paradigm away from the static culturally oppressiveness of Israel’s religious leadership, something for which they sought to crucify him for. Paul also radically reinterpreted the old rituals of Israel, and insisted on redefining them under a new paradigm of grace and love, in which all are accepted and find acceptance. The New Testament witness is one of change, adaptation, modification, growth, and rediscovery of what it meant to be God’s people.

Every generation needs to redefine its own rituals, as it discovers its own story of God’s unconditional grace for them. We learn from the past, but we are not locked into the past. Finally, it is commonly agreed amongst sociologist and social theorists that what we call ritual or tradition, is generally 20 years old. What we think is ritualistic and something we have always done, therefore changes even when we don’t fully understand or acknowledge that such a change has occurred.